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Forget about fat, sugar, even sodium. There's a new dietary evil we're told to cut from our diets: wheat.

According to Dr. William Davis, author of best-selling Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health, the grain that's been a staple of the human diet for thousands of years is making us sick and fat.

In his book, Davis makes the case that wheat is the "world's most destructive dietary ingredient." Just how toxic is wheat? Davis, a U.S. cardiologist, asserts that our consumption of "genetically altered" modern wheat is the cause of rising obesity rates and a myriad of diseases, including celiac disease, diabetes, heart disease, even schizophrenia.

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The remedy? Follow the Wheat Belly diet, and your spare tire and your symptoms – digestive upset, rashes, joint pain, foggy thinking, to list just a few – will vanish. Too good to be true? Perhaps.

Wheat Belly is yet another diet book that blames one food, food group or food ingredient – be it fat, carbohydrates, sugar, or, in this case, wheat products – for a multifaceted problem: obesity. And it does so by putting forth one doctor's theories, notions that aren't strongly backed by scientific evidence.

The problem with today's wheat, according to Davis, is a protein called gluten. Years of traditional wheat breeding have created changes in the structure of gluten, alterations potentially harmful to human health. Yet, the data used to support this notion come from an experiment conducted in the laboratory, not conventional plant breeding.

According to Dr. Brett Carver, wheat genetics chair in agriculture at Oklahoma State University, none of the wheat grown in North America is developed through the process used in the cited lab experiment. What's more, experts say the gluten composition of wheat has not changed dramatically over the past 100 years.

To be clear, nowhere in the world is wheat a product of genetic engineering, nor is Davis claiming it is. Genetically engineered crops may have foreign genes – from other plants or animals – inserted into their genetic codes.

Is there a connection between wheat and obesity? While the proliferation of wheat products parallels the rise in obesity, such an association does not prove cause and effect. (It is interesting to note that people in some European and Asian countries consume much higher per capita amounts of wheat flour than those in the United States, yet they have lower obesity rates.)

It does suggest, however, that one culprit behind our expanding waistlines is our penchant for highly processed wheat products. It's true that a steady intake of refined grains can lead to increased levels of insulin, which can drive appetite and fat storage. But is this the real reason obesity is on the rise?

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We must also consider the so-called "obesogenic" environment in which we live, one that encourages us to eat and drink more calories than we expend. We rely on cars to take us everywhere. Highly processed and fast foods are easily accessible. Hectic lifestyles force many of us to eat on the go, rather than sitting down to a home-cooked meal.

There's no proof eating wheat is a direct cause of obesity, nor is there strong evidence to show the grain causes the numerous diseases that Davis links it to. Yes, eating wheat can trigger celiac disease in genetically predisposed people. And yes, the prevalence of celiac disease is on the rise; according to Mayo Clinic researchers, four times as many people have the disease now than did in 1950s. But researchers aren't certain why.

Celiac disease is an inherited disorder that causes the body's immune system to attack the small intestine when gluten – found in wheat, rye and barley – is consumed. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss and, in children, delayed growth. But many symptoms of celiac, such as bloating, skin rashes, joint pain, anemia and infertility, are more subtle or don't involve the gut. As a result, the disease can go unrecognized for years before a diagnosis is made.

So what does the Wheat Belly diet look like? In my opinion, it's a dressed-up version of a low-carb diet. Besides no wheat, other off-limits foods include potatoes, processed gluten-free foods (such as breads and crackers), juices, dried fruit, soy products and energy bars. You can eat gluten-free grains such as rice, buckwheat, millet and quinoa, but serving sizes must be less than 1/2 cup. Milk, yogurt and cottage cheese must be limited. Because of its sugar content, fruit is also limited to very small serving sizes.

You can eat vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds, unprocessed meats, cheese, oils, olives, avocados and pickled vegetables.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an Ottawa-based obesity expert regards the diet as "just Atkins minus cured meats … it's highly restrictive and extremely unlikely to be sustainable in the long run."

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Shelley Case, a dietitian and member of the professional advisory board of the Canadian Celiac Association, advises anyone with symptoms suggestive of celiac disease to get tested. And until you do, you must avoid all gluten-free diets, including the Wheat Belly diet, because in order to be accurately diagnosed, you must be eating a gluten-containing diet.

"Because one in 100 people have celiac disease, yet only 5 to 10 per cent are diagnosed, get tested before jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon," Case says.

Once diagnosed, individuals with celiac disease must strictly adhere to a gluten-free diet. As for the rest of us? Dropping wheat can help some people feel better, in particular those with a wheat sensitivity.But if you're following the Wheat Belly diet to lose weight, first ask yourself if you can envision eating this way long-term.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen Thursdays at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct.

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